Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Ethics concerns raised over Montgomery lawmakers’ trips to Israel

Organizer says ruling was not behind cancellation of next week’s departure

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This story was corrected on Aug. 30 from its original version.

A short e-mail to a County Council member from Montgomery County’s ethics commission ended a 25-year practice of lawmakers taking trips to Israel that were paid for by a group that lobbies the county and council for thousands of dollars in grants.

Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg requested the ruling after being invited on the trip by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. In an e-mail, the commission’s executive secretary informed Trachtenberg that ‘‘the routing of monies through a lobbyist organization to provide travel services makes the gift unacceptable as the Commission has determined that can still be construed under the law as a gift from a lobbyist.”

JCRC, on the part of other Jewish groups, lobbies for thousands in taxpayer money annually for its programs and operations from the county, including $69,530 last year to buy computers and software.

The e-mail goes on to say that if the ‘‘gift” had been offered directly by a private foundation that was not a lobbyist, ‘‘it might be permissible.”

A formal ruling is expected from the commission by the end of the week.

Council members Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac and Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring were also invited on the trip, scheduled for Sept. 2 through Sept. 11. County Executive Isiah Leggett and other county officials were scheduled to go on another JCRC-sponsored trip to Israel in October. Based on the e-mail sent to Trachtenberg, that trip, too, would appear to violate the county’s ethics standards.

‘‘I wanted to be very careful about the manner in which I funded my campaign, and I wanted to be sure that this kind of travel was approved,” said Trachtenberg (D-At large) of North Bethesda, who was prepared to pay her own way after she received the e-mail on Monday. ‘‘I think some people were surprised by the ruling. Hopefully, there will be a future trip.”

The JCRC has canceled its trip, but not because of Monday’s e-mail, said JCRC Executive Director Ronald Halber.

‘‘For the first time we had an unusual amount of circumstances that forced people to drop out due to family illness,” he said.

The organization has sponsored about 20 trips in 25 years, Halber said.

JCRC changed its method of paying for the trips in an effort to abide by a state ethics ruling from a few years ago, he said. JCRC enlisted a separate nonprofit foundation to extend the invitations and to pay for the trips of Maryland officials, including Montgomery County council members.

‘‘We were following the state rule for the county, and because the rules are similar we thought everything was OK. We had already been cleared by the state,” Halber said. ‘‘We were careful and had already planned to separate Montgomery County people’s money and provide individual receipts for each thing for each person.”

The foundation, which Halber would not identify, pulled its funding for the Maryland officials after Monday’s ethics commission e-mail, he said.

Ervin pulled out several weeks ago after her mother underwent surgery, and county school board President Nancy Navarro, who was also invited, canceled this week after her grandfather fell ill. Halber said some Virginia officials also canceled for personal reasons.

On July 23, Navarro (Dist. 5) of Silver Spring asked the school board’s legal counsel if the trip violated any of the board’s standards. Attorney Judith Bresler told Navarro that her participation in the trip was appropriate because the JCRC does not lobby the school board for money nor does the organization seek contracts for services with the school system.

Since JCRC began sponsoring the trips, it has taken elected officials from Virginia, Washington and Maryland, including several Montgomery County Council members and former County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, to Israel. Before Trachtenberg asked about the ethics of the trip, Halber said no other county official questioned the trips.

‘‘We respect the decision of the [ethics] commission and we’ll honor it. I think they overreached,” Halber said. ‘‘I think the pendulum may be swinging too far. The reality is, right now every other group of elected officials, except Montgomery County officials, are free to come.”

The ethics commission’s e-mail does not automatically mean an end to Leggett’s October trip, said county spokesman Patrick K. Lacefield.

‘‘We want to see the [formal] opinion,” he said. ‘‘There are some economic development things [Leggett] wanted to do on the trip. We have this trip scheduled and it’s possible we’ll still go and fund it through other ways.”

A November trip to India is not affected, Lacefield said, because it is being paid for with county money.

‘‘Frankly there haven’t been these questions before,” said Lacefield. ‘‘I just think before we did not have a ruling from the ethics commission. They give answers when somebody asks their opinion or when somebody files a complaint, and nobody did either.”

While he was county executive, Duncan went on a JCRC trip, former spokesman David S. Weaver said. Other people on the trip, Weaver said, were then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), her chief of staff and Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington. Weaver said he made a similar trip in 2005 along with Montgomery Dels. Herman L. Taylor Jr. (D-Dist. 14) of Ashton and Susan C. Lee (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda, as well as Prince George’s Dels. Anthony G. Brown (D-Dist. 25) of Mitchellville, now the lieutenant governor, and Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Dist. 22) of Berwyn Heights. Also on the trip was Del. Norman H. Conway (D-Dist. 38B) of Salisbury, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

In previous years, including for its last trip in 2005, the JCRC paid the roughly $4,000 per person for the regional representatives. This year the unnamed foundation was to pay the expenses of the Maryland officials, while JCRC paid expenses for D.C. and Virginia officials, Halber said.

Halber said the JCRC trips were to build relationships between Maryland and Israel.

‘‘There were sessions planned discussing homeland security, public health, hospital visits and much more,” Halber said. ‘‘This is just a temporary setback until we figure out other solutions. Our trips are not over. This will not be our last trip.

The Baltimore Jewish Council, which sponsors its own trips to Israel, pays for its trips through a separate foundation, similar to JCRC.

The BJC trips, whose participants have included Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. when he served in the House of Delegates, are financed by the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation, a large Baltimore-based philanthropic organization.

‘‘We went in advance to the state ethics commission to seek their advice to make sure we were completely within the terms of the law,” said Art Abramson, BJC’s executive director. Abramson helps staff the trips to Israel.

The BJC also hired a lawyer who specializes in laws covering nonprofits to make sure no rules were violated, Abramson said.

Staff Writers Douglas Tallman and Audrey Dutton contributed to this report.